Every year, we sit down to the Pesach seder with our family and friends and recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
We delight in the festive holiday meal, drink four cups of wine and sing songs of praise to the Almighty. Just when we think we’re all done for another year, those of us outside Israel go ahead and do it all over again the next night! What’s the reason for this strange practice?
Jews outside Israel are obligated to celebrate Yom Tov Sheini Shel Galiyot, the second day of the festival in the Diaspora. How did this obligation arise? Where did it come from? What does one do if he or she is in Israel over the holiday?
Prior to the third century CE, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem declared the beginning of a new month on the basis of the testimony of two witnesses who claimed to see the new moon. These witnesses were questioned by the court and had to provide details about the position of the moon in the sky in order to validate their claim.
When the testimony was accepted, beacon fires were set ablaze on mountaintops to announce the beginning of the new month. Surrounding communities would spread the word of the new month by starting fires on their own mountains. This chain reaction would quickly alert all Jewish communities to the announcement of Rosh Chodesh, both inside and outside of Israel.
Unfortunately, those times were fraught with strife, as there were many breakaway sects within Judaism vying for control of its religious institutions. Several of these sects would deliberately attempt to confuse the populace by setting fires erroneously.
As a result, the Sanhedrin decided to send out messengers to all Jewish communities outside Israel to alert them that the new moon had been declared in Jerusalem. With this information, the local authorities could calculate when a given holiday would occur that month.
Occasionally, however, these messengers would be delayed or not arrive at all. As a result, far-flung communities would be in a situation of safek (doubt) as to which day that month the holiday would begin. The Sanhedrin soon became aware of this difficulty and decreed that all communities outside of Israel must celebrate two days of the festival in order to be assured that the correct day was celebrated.
During the third century CE, Hillel the Elder, under mounting persecution from Roman authorities, established the fixed Jewish calendar currently in use today. However, it was decreed that Diaspora communities should continue to celebrate two days of yom tov as commanded by the Sanhedrin.
Even though all Jewish communities today continue to use Hillel’s fixed calendar, the Shulchan Aruch writes that the practice of keeping two days of yom tov outside Israel still exists in our times.
What is someone to do if he or she finds themselves in Israel for the holiday? The poskim (halachic decisors) have differing opinions on the matter. The Chacham Tzvi (Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Ashkenazi, d. 1718) held the most lenient opinion in the matter. His position was that one acts according to local custom depending where he is. A non-Israeli would only keep one day when in Israel for Yom Tov, and vice versa.
The Chacham Tzvi’s son, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, opined that if one were visiting Israel for the holiday and was unmarried at the time, he could observe one day on the chance that he may find a suitable marriage partner and remain in Israel permanently.
Nowadays, with the advent of modern transportation allowing individuals the ability to travel frequently and for specific periods of time, modern poskim rule more stringently on the matter. The Mishna Berurah (Orach Chayim, 496:3) states that if one’s intention is to visit Israel for the holiday and then depart afterward, he must still celebrate two days of yom yov. The prayers said are those of yom tov, including Musaf, and if one’s in Israel on the last day of Pesach, he must continue to only consume maztah and avoid all chametz.
If one’s intention when going to Israel is to stay permanently, he would only keep one day and follow all other customs pertinent to Israeli residents.
The lone dissenting opinion among modern poskim was that of Rav Yoseph Soloveitchik, who held that someone visiting Israel would keep a day and a half. This meant that he would pray weekday prayers, including wearing tfillin, but wouldn’t be allowed to eat chametz on the eighth day nor do any forbidden melachah (labour).
No matter where you’re spending Pesach this year, have a Chag Kasher v’Samayach!